For the near 10 years that I have lived in Argentina, I have very purposefully avoided going to Mar del Plata. Whenever that forever Californian urge for salty sea air and a quick dip in the ocean lingers to the front of my brain, I’ve pushed it to the back, opting instead to just wait for an almost yearly visit to Southern California or a hop over to the quiet beaches of northern Uruguay.

I was expecting something a little closer to the latter: an untouched beach city stuck in the 1980s that hands everyone a basket of fried rabas upon arrival. But the city appears stuck at a crossroads — existing somewhere between oldschool barrial and a new scene that hasn’t quite figured itself out yet. Read: an entry-level set of hamburgueserias, cervecerias and Zona Norte looking commercial neighborhoods that appear out of nowhere and fade back just as briskly.

Here is a quick and fast guide by a complete non-expert on eats in Mar del Plata.

Viento en Popa

We were welcomed by wet scrambled eggs, cardboard pancakes and coffee that tasted like warm aluminum at the shockingly beloved local coffee chain, La Fonte D’Oro, and thought that all was lost before it had even started. Bright blue skies illuminated a long walk into a port district that felt more like Soviet industrial than Atlantic coast glam. Viento en Popa was the pit stop before reaching the tourist light ports where stinky (and adorable) sea lions and Chinese manufactured local trinkets await. At noon, the place was nearly empty. A giant plate of fried calamari needed a generous kick of anything. A spritz of lemon juice and heavy hand of salt lifted the tender bites of squid above slightly boring. The fish of the day, lenguado pan-fried in sage butter and served with potatoes and balls of shrimp saved the place. Delicate bites of sole were lightly browned with just a hint of crunch that hid incredibly fresh, flakey meat.

Av. de los Trabajadores 257

Lo de Tata

If you ask anyone for a restaurant recommendation in Mar del Plata, you are likely going to hear Lo de Tata listed out by everyone you ask. A sea of plaid tablecloths and waiters that are as impeccably dressed as they are suspicious of foreigners greeted us at this busy neighborhood cantina. The menu is almost entirely seafood and generous on the Italian influence. A no frills tortilla española exclusively served babe cracks apart and spills yolk like a waking volcano, and is enough for a return visit. Cachetes de raya, or stingray cheeks, despite being listed as a catch of the day tasted a little ammoniacal. A sarteneada de langostino, or pan-fried shrimp, served with a fried egg and goblets of crunchy chorizo was a divine intervention from the seafood gods.

La Rioja 3098

0223 473-5161, reservation recommended

Dei Fiori

When they say doors open at 8:30, they mean it. The lights were dimmed down and doors locked until not a minute earlier. This Italian joint is dressed to the nines like your great aunts sunroom with pale green floral tablecloths as far as the eyes can see. To start, eggplant parmesan comes stacked like mini lasagnas and fragrant of freshly plucked basil. A never ending list of pasta, with but mostly without fish, make choosing a chore. We went for spaghetti carbonara. The waiter pulls long strings of fresh spaghetti served al dente with squares of panceta and a sticky egg and cheese sauce. An over-sized entrecot, cooked a perfect medium-rare with a drool worthy crust, gave the one tried recently at Urondo a run for its money. Bite for bite, this was the best meal I had in Mar del Plata.

Olavarría 2529

0223 486-2834, reservation recommended

HOPS

Although every other bar in town was a cerveceria, HOPS, a small bar across from the quintessential Hotel Provincial was the only one open during the day. Except for an Antares, a last ditch effort for a pint that was as joyful an experience as a full brazilian wax. About a dozen beers on tap, mostly from local brewers, can be enjoyed during a generous midday happy hour. The servers are happy to let you sample and they’ll keep the little shots coming until you find the right cerveza. We went, three times, and tried a range of Session IPAs from Baum, Bohr, Borneo, Cheverry and Brewhouse.

Av. Patricio Peralta Ramos 2701

The Wine Bar

Reservations in Mar del Plata are a serious thing — something we learned when showing up to Lo de Tata unannounced. A block away, The Wine Bar was barely able to make room for us in a totally booked dining room. About 10 wines are available on tap both from boutique and big wineries. We opted for a Benmarco pinot noir by Susana Balbo and an excellent picada while we waited for our table down the street.

San Lorenzo 2980

Helados Italia

Although we missed the churros at Manolo, there was no way I was leaving Mar del Plata without a chocolate dipped cannoli from local chain Helados Italia. Crunchy wafers are stuffed with ice cream, layered with dulce de leche and nuts and dipped in chocolate. No brainer. There are also chocolate bananas and a long list of ice cream.

All over Mar del Plata

Loris

Shout out to the only bar de viejes that I could find after days of walking all over the city. Loris had the best coffee I drank in the span of 72 hours. Although I didn’t indulge, budget travelers can enjoy a $140 menu del día and what looked like a legit handmade muzza.

Alberti 1633